On March 11, four years ago, the great east Japan earthquake rocked the north-eastern coast of Japan leading to a triple reactor core meltdown in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The explosion that followed spewed radiation to as far as Fukushima City, 60 km from the plant site. Around 160,000 citizens were relocated to temporary housing and other places in Japan to avoid contamination. The estimated bill for the damage is believed to be at least USD 250 Billion, all of which will be footed using public money by the operator, Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) and the Japanese government.
Four years hence, the damaged plant continues to eject large quantities of radiation into the surrounding air and water. The operator has not made much progress in stemming the flow of radiation. Most monitoring locations within the 60km radius of the plant continue to report high values of contamination. With no permanent storage location, the mountains of waste generated are being haphazardly stored in various locations, including backyards of houses, parking lots and parks. Untreated contaminated water from the site has also leaked into the Pacific Ocean. The majority of the affected population continues to be displaced, living in cramped one-room apartments. Most of them have given up hope of ever returning to their old lives.
"While the 10m-high tsunami wave was the trigger, what ensued at the plant was clearly the product of human error and gross malpractice on behalf of both the operator and the then nuclear regulator "
A Tsunami And A Man-Made Disaster
While the 10m-high tsunami wave was the trigger, what ensued at the plant was clearly the product of human error and gross malpractice on behalf of both the operator and the then nuclear regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA).
NISA was a semi-autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI). METI's primary purpose was the promotion of nuclear energy. METI members were also a part of the NISA staff, along with "technically trained experts" from the industry. In practice, NISA was what is known as a captured regulator--a regulator that had been effectively captured and defanged by interested parties such as the industry and the bureaucrats that oversee it. It caters instead to the needs of the industry by formulating and enforcing weak regulations and standards.
This is exactly the kind of clash of interest that led to the regulator accepting falsified reports from TEPCO, hiding critical cracks in the reactor vessel. This reactor vessel was found to be so flawed that its designers from General Electric resigned in protest, certain of an inevitable disaster if the reactor were out to use.
Even in the aftermath of the disaster, the regulator continued to fail miserably at its duties by not releasing crucial data on the radiation spread to the public. This in turn led to a completely unplanned and unguided evacuation with residents flying straight into high-radiation areas.
Lessons From Fukushima
Since the disaster, both the regulator and the operator issued multiple apologies. NISA for its lax attitude towards ensuring the safety of the plants and TEPCO for its unpreparedness in crisis management.
NISA was finally replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) on 19 September, 2012. The NRA is an Article 3 authority under Japan's National Government Organization Law. This guarantees it "independent exercise of authority, without control and supervision from a senior agency (e.g. the minister of a relevant government ministry)". It also places the safety agency outside the government system, wherein it is not required to practice rotation of personnel from agency to agency within the ministry, as was the case with NISA and the METI.
It is a part of, and not under, the Ministry of Environment (MOE) and its staff consists primarily of civil servants from the MOE. If nothing else, through this action, Japan at least showed that it had learnt its lesson of keeping the regulator separate from the ministries that have an interest to promote nuclear power. This is a valuable lesson which the Indian government has still not picked up.
"The strength of an actual autonomous regulator cannot be replaced by however many bodies affiliated in some way to the government and other parties with vested interest."
Why India Needs To Take Notice
The Indian regulatory system is riddled with conflicting interest. The Indian regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is located under the government unit of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) - just as the NISA was under the METI. The chairman of AERB reports to the Secretary of DAE. The DAE promotes nuclear technology in the country. India's sole nuclear operator, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, also comes under the administrative control of the DAE and is regulated by the AERB. This set up has effectively stripped the regulator of what freedom it could have had in framing rules and overseeing the working of the operator.
Post Fukushima, the Indian government introduced the NSRA Bill in the Lok Sabha in September 2011. NSRA was to be a truly autonomous body. Unlike AERB which reported to DAE, it would submit is report to the Parliament. And while AERB was created following a government order, the NSRA would be established by an Act of Parliament, making it much stronger.
But on the other hand, the members of the NSRA will be picked by a Council consisting of the Prime Minister and other government minsters, essentially paving way for another government-controlled regulator. Certain "nuclear material, radioactive material, facilities, premises and activities" can be exempted from the jurisdiction of the regulator in the name of national defence by the central government. The Regulator will also be exempted from the purview of the RTI Act, reducing the need for it to be transparent.
The recommendations made by the Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2012 addressed some of these glaring shortfalls. After its lapse with the change in government, the Bill was to be considered again in the Winter Parliament Session of 2014. But the Session has come and gone and the Bill remains unaddressed.
But passing the Bill along with the recommendations alone will not grant absolute autonomy to the regulator. The NSRA will still not have complete financial, administrative and institutional independence from the government. No ideal solution can be found until the Indian government acknowledges the fact that the strength of an actual autonomous regulator cannot be replaced by however many bodies affiliated in some way to the government and other parties with vested interest. A disaster like Fukushima is too high a price to pay for overlooking this simple fact.